Coping with stress

to be aware of the range of coping styles used in stressful situations. to understand the differences between emotion-focused & problem-focused coping methods. to be able to describe situations where one approach may be more adaptive than the other

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Measuring how we cope with stress

Some idea of this range (everyday stressors) is given by the COPE scale Carver et al 1989, a widely used research questionnaire on coping styles. This has 15 different copign strategies, such as denialm turning to religion, active coping, using emotional support, turning to alcohol, etc. This scale gives a good idea of the range of methods people use, but it is still at unwieldy instrument.

COPE scale: questionnaire used to asses an individual's coping strategies. it provides ratings on 15 diff strategies


Active coping- taking direct action to deal with a problem

Seeking instrumental support- talking to others about the problem, looking for practical advice & support.

Seeking emotional support- dicussing feelings about a problem with friends & family

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COPE scale

Focus on & venting of emotions- becoming upset & expressing feelings when distressed

Denial- refusing to belive something has happened, or pretending it hasn't

Humour- laughing & making fun of the situation

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The distinction between emotion-focused & problem-

It has been suggested that people may use a particular style of coping. For instance Roth & Cohen 1986 introudced the idea of approach and avoidant coping. Avoidant coping might be more adaptive for short-term stressors & approach coping for long-term stressors (Holahan & Moos, 1986) but people tend to adpot 1 style consistently.

Approach coping- coping with stress by tacklying the situation directly

Avoidant coping- coping with stress by denying the significance of stressful situations & pretending they don't exist

An alternative & more felxible approach is based on the idea that stressful situations can involve practical demands ('what can i do actively to confront this stressor & reduce its impact'), & also an emotional impact ('this situation is alarming & distressing'). The individual may address the practical side of the situation - this is problem-focused coping - or they may target the emotional impact - this is emotional-focused coping.

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The distinction between emotion-focused & problem-

But a key point is that these are not opposites; the same person may use problem- & emotion-focused coping stimultaneously, or switch from 1 to other depending on the situation. This would depend upon the person's appraisal of demands & coping resources.

Problem-focused coping- a coping style that tries to target the causes of stress in practical ways that directly reduce the impact of stressor.

Emotion-focused coping- a coping style that targets the emotional impact of stressors. Strategies include denial & seeking support from friends.

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The distinction between emotion-focused & problem-

Problem-focused coping can involve:

  • reducing the demands of the stressor by active coping, for instance systematically planning a revision shcedule for an important examination
  • improving your coping resources by, for instance, using your social network for informational & practical support

Emotion-focused coping can involve:

  • cognitive emotion-focused coping, such as denial by the severity of an illness ( this is a form of avoidant coping), or distraction by thinking about other things
  • behavioural emotion-focused coping, such as becoming angry ('venting emotion'), drinking & smoking more / seeking emotional support from friends
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what is the more effective strategy?

it might seem obvious that problem-focused coping would always be the more effective strategy, but a moment's thought would show you that this is not always the case. We do not always have control over stressors in our lives. This is particularly the case with diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, where the scope for problem-focused coping is limited. Carver et al 1993 found that the emotion-focused strategy of denial led to better adjustment in women with breast cancer, while emotional social support has also been found to help in coping with cancer De Boer et al 1999. Factors that may affect the type of coping response shown therefore include the following:

  • The stressor itself: Vitaliano et al 1990 concluded that problem-focused coping was used more often with work problems. Emotion-focused coping was used where there were problems with personal relationships.
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Factors that may affect the type of coping respons

  • A Key feature of stressors is whether they are controllable or not:Lazarus & Folkman 1987 suggest that, quite sensibly, people use more problem-focused coping with they see a situation as controllable, & as emotion-focused when they see it as out of their control. Problems at work & examinations could be seen as mre controllable than life threatenging illness & relationships.
  • Gender may be a factor, although research is not that consistent: some findings Stone & Neale 1984 suggest that womnen use more emotion-focused strategies & men more problemm-focused, but others (hamilton & fagot 1988) found no differences between the genders in coping styles.
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An interesting question about coping styles is whether people consistently use the same one. Tennen et al 2000 studied daily coping styles in patients with chronic (long-lasting) pain, in a longitudinal study. Each day, p's completed a coping-style questionnaire & assesed their level of pain. Results were:

  • Individual patients used diff strategies stimultaneously; emotion-focused strategies were used 4.4 times morew on days when problem-focused strategies were also used, than on days when problem-focused strategies were not. The diff styles of coping are not therefore indepdendent but interact
  • Success or failure of a given strategy was also important. An increase in pain associated with problem-focused coping would be followed the next day by an increase in emotion-focused coping ie the patient was responsive to the success/ failure of a particular strategy on a particular day.
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This shows that we constantly asses the sucess of a particular strategy & modify our coping techs accordingly. Thsi does not mean that we do not have characteristic coping styles; we may tend to try out preffered method at 1st, whether it is problem-focused (i can deal with any problem directly) or emotion-focused (whatever happens, i would always talk to my friends 1st), but we are able to alter out approach on the basis of success or failure

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